After beating Burnley, Manchester United enter a pivotal few weeks. If Erik ten Hag cannot improve their fortunes, Manchester City will be waiting to bring down the axe.
Relief washed over the faces of Manchester United players on Saturday evening as they ground out a 1-0 win over Burnley at Turf Moor. The full-time celebrations were more defiant than jubilant, a reflection of how uncomfortable the past few weeks have been.
Make no mistake, there’s been little joy in United games this season. Even when they’ve won, the unconvincing nature of those victories and the underwhelming performances have overshadowed the results.
And then they went into the weekend having lost three consecutive matches within a single season for the first time since April 2019, after Bayern Munich beat them 4-3 at the Allianz Arena last week; it was a result that flattered United, too.
It also meant they’d conceded three or more goals in three successive matches in all competitions, ignominy that hadn’t befallen a United team since December 1978. They were six games into the campaign and had lost four times already, which last occurred 37 years ago, suddenly making Erik ten Hag one of the favourites to become the first managerial casualty of the 2023-24 Premier League season.
“This was a must-win,” Ten Hag told reporters on Saturday, a serious expression quickly replacing his smile as if suddenly remembering he’d left the hob on at home.
Of course, “must-win” is a classic football cliché, often a throwaway comment because the speaker doesn’t have anything more interesting to say. But in this instance, you genuinely feared for Ten Hag’s job if United didn’t get a positive result.
It wasn’t particularly satisfying, but the win at Turf Moor was a necessary palate cleanser.
Burnley had more shots (12 to 11) than United; those attempts amounted to more expected goals (1.09 to 0.97); Ten Hag’s men also had far less of the ball (38.2% to 61.8%) … In nearly all metrics, Burnley bettered United on Saturday.
Say the line, Bart!
“But there’s only one statistic that really matters!”
Bruno Fernandes’ brilliant volley from Jonny Evans’ exquisite 40-yard lofted through-ball was so good it deserved to settle the game. The rest of the team then lived up to their end of the bargain and ensured it did, though it’s difficult to say United’s victory was a product of an excellent performance on their part.
Maybe that’s the point; there’s certainly a school of thought that it didn’t matter what a win looked like for Ten Hag, just that they stopped the rot. Of course, things would look rosier had they stuffed Burnley 5-0, but on the evidence of the previous few weeks and the fact they’re still in something of an injury(/absence) crisis, no one really expected that to happen.
It felt important that United managed to grind out a win despite still having so many players missing, even accounting for Burnley being winless. Harry Maguire, Mason Mount, Amad Diallo, Tyrell Malacia, Luke Shaw, Kobbie Mainoo and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were joined in the medical room by Lisandro Martínez before the game, while Jadon Sancho and Antony remain absent indefinitely.
But the situation would appear to be easing. Mount is seemingly in contention to return this week; Raphaël Varane and Sofyan Amrabat were able to make their respective returns as late substitutes on Saturday; the promising Mainoo – very prominent in pre-season – is back in training, and the injuries suffered by Maguire and Martínez aren’t thought to be serious.
There’s obviously no guarantee others won’t sustain knocks as these players return, but for the moment it looks as though United have come through the worst of the injury crisis and just in time for what most would perceive to be a kinder run.
Six of their next seven matches across all competitions are at home, including each of the first four. They host Crystal Palace back-to-back in the EFL Cup and Premier League, before also welcoming Galatasaray and Brentford. A trip to Sheffield United – which on the evidence of Sunday’s 8-0 hammering by Newcastle United isn’t something to be afraid of – follows the international break, then FC København and Manchester City visit Old Trafford.
While any shot of a title challenge already looks to have passed United by – the Opta supercomputer gives them a 2.9% chance of another top-three finish – that date with City on 29 October will be playing on the minds of supporters and Ten Hag. They now have just over a month to build confidence and cohesion, and their run of fixtures in the interim seems to lend itself to such a scenario.
Won’t the Real Man Utd Please Stand Up?
Just because a fixture schedule is comforting “on paper”, it doesn’t mean an easy ride is guaranteed. While United will expect to pick up positive results a little more frequently over the next few weeks, it surely means that if they don’t then there could be major consequences – and as the graphic below suggests, their next five league fixtures will throw up some challenges.
The nightmare scenario for United would be for them to continue struggling over the next month and go into the derby devoid of confidence. Sure, a shock win could have a galvanising effect, but their record in games of such magnitude hasn’t exactly been impressive under Ten Hag, conceding six and seven in single matches against City and Liverpool last season. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that another mauling could cost the manager his job if the general outlook hasn’t improved by then.
Clearly, the United squad is much better than we’ve seen this season. There were real signs of positivity and progress last term, and the arrivals of Rasmus Højlund, Mount, Amrabat and André Onana all addressed specific needs in the summer.
But even last season, when the majority of the squad was available, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what sort of team Man Utd were. Sure, they could be effective on the counter, but they weren’t really supposed to be just a counter-attacking team. With Ten Hag arriving from Ajax, United fans expected possession-based, attack-minded football that was also leveraged by a high press.
In 2022-23 they ranked sixth in the Premier League for total passes (19,085), possession (53.7%), expected goals (69.1) and high turnovers (328). One way of looking at it would be to say this was a decent platform to build on in every respect, or that they weren’t truly outstanding in any of those areas.
It was a common criticism to say United lacked identity; even the graphic above somewhat illustrates the point, as they hover close to average both in terms of passes per sequence and their directness. Marcus Rashford’s speed made them a threat in transition, but that doesn’t really constitute an “identity”, particularly given he was probably the only player (along with maybe Alejandro Garnacho) who turned such moves into danger.
Perhaps this lack of identifying features didn’t matter as they managed a commendable third-place finish and won a first trophy in six years; but nearly 18 months on from Ten Hag’s appointment, it’s still difficult to really say what sort of team they are.
They do at least appear to have continued making strides when it comes to pressing, with their 67 high turnovers five more than any other team in the Premier League this term and 14 shot-ending high turnovers second only to Brighton (17).
But otherwise, as an attacking unit they’ve been very disappointing; United’s 51 shots excluding blocks (90 including blocks) is better than only Nottingham Forest (45), Luton Town (41 from a match less), Sheffield United (40), Fulham (40) and Burnley (38 from a match less). They haven’t been dominant, falling shy of 50% possession on average thus far, and their opponents have tallied 61 shots (excluding blocks), a figure better than only six teams.
Essentially, United haven’t been difficult to play against. But again we come back to the availability issues Ten Hag’s had; if this continues to ease over the next few days, we could get close to seeing a starting XI built around mostly players signed by the Dutchman. It’ll be his team, and United fans will hope that brings out the best in them.
Either way, we will see the real ‘Ten Hag’s Manchester United’ over the next month; if that doesn’t bring results, this could be another era for the post-Alex Ferguson scrapheap.